Finding Double Indemnity's Leading Man Was A Painful Process

A number of the finest actors of Classic Hollywood made their bones in the seedy world of film noir. Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, and so many more took up roles as private detectives, gangsters, and everyday men caught in a bind over the course of their careers. They were steely, tough, no-nonsense types with a vulnerability creeping underneath it all. It made sense why studios would want these guys leading their films. They could blend the handsome leading man with the brutish mentality required for these parts.

"Double Indemnity," for many (including myself), is the high watermark of the genre. Billy Wilder's tale of insurance man Walter Neff concocting a scheme with femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson to collect a life insurance policy by murdering her husband drips with style — packed wall to wall with crackling dialogue, and featuring a truly dynamic duo at its center, played by Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck. What makes its reputation odd is the presence of its leading man. MacMurray is never an actor you would immediately associate with the hard-boiled nature of film noir. By and large, he was a comedian, prior to his work in "Double Indemnity" and afterwards. Naturally, he was not the first person to come to Billy Wilder's mind while casting the picture.

'I'm a saxophone player'

Likability has always limited what a lot of movie stars and leading actors would be willing to do on screen. That was as true 100 years ago as it is today. If you craft a certain persona of affability, charm, and humor, some think that by taking the risk of playing someone truly unscrupulous could turn away the fanbase you had worked to acquire over your career. Walter Neff is one of those characters. He is seemingly an average man who is willing to commit murder and insurance fraud to steal away another man's wife. This is not a traditional hero by any stretch. As Billy Wilder explains in an interview from the book "Film Noir Reader 3: Interviews with Filmmakers of the Classic Noir Period," actors all over Hollywood, including Fred MacMurray himself, were not keen on taking on this part:

"Well, he was just kind of a middle-class insurance guy who works an angle. If he is that tough, then there is nothing left for Stanwyck to work on. He has to be seduced and sucked in on that thing. He is the average man who suddenly becomes a murderer. That's the dark aspect of the middle-class, how ordinary guys can come to commit murder. But it was difficult to get a leading man. Everybody turned me down. I tried up and down the street, believe me, including George Raft. Nobody would do it, they didn't want to play this unsympathetic guy. Nor did Fred MacMurray see the possibilities at first. He said, 'Look, I'm a saxophone player. I'm making my comedies with Claudette Colbert, what do you want?' 'Well, you've got to make that one step, and believe me it's going to be rewarding; and it's not that difficult to do.' So he did it. But he didn't want to do it. He didn't want to be murdered, he didn't want to be a murderer."

Luckily for us, MacMurray took on the role, and it turns out the massive strength of his performance is because we would never expect someone like him to do this. What so many of these stars concerned with their image have never understood is that subverting their image can be just as powerful as perfectly executing the one they have created, if not more so. Think about James Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window" or "Vertigo," playing men whose morality is always in question. It's thrilling to see these actors play characters like this, challenging them as actors in ways they had not been in a long time. Without Fred MacMurray, this whole other dimension to Walter Neff would not have been properly tapped.

Dick Powell wanted the gig

One actor willing to stick his neck out for the role was Dick Powell. Throughout the 1930s, Powell was a go-to player for Warner Bros. for musical comedies, starring in pictures like "Gold Diggers of 1933," "Footlight Parade," and their star-studded production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." He was a handsome face with a nice smile and wonderful voice. In the 1940s, he moved over to Paramount, which is the studio that produced "Double Indemnity." Billy Wilder recounts how Powell lobbied hard for the role:

"Dick Powell, he volunteered to do it. He told me, 'I'll do it for nothing.' He knew that was the way out of those silly things—you know where he was singing smack into Ruby Keeler's face and he had to get out of that, so he was dying to play [Walter Neff]. That was before 'Murder, My Sweet.' He came to my office to sell me: 'For Christ's sake, let me play it.' 'Well look, I can take a comedian, and make it. But I don't want to take a singer.' And he was damned good, you know, in 'Murder, My Sweet.'"

Unlike Fred MacMurray, Powell longed to do what so many stars had tried to avoid as best they could. He wanted to shake up his image for the public. For those who are unaware, "Murder, My Sweet" marked the first screen appearance of the character Philip Marlowe, the hardboiled private detective who would go on to be played by Humphrey Bogart in "The Big Sleep" and Elliott Gould in "The Long Goodbye." Powell acquitted himself well in the noir genre, and from then on out, he would consistently be cast in dramas and crime films through the end of his career. A personal favorite late performance from Powell is in the fantastic Vincente Minnelli Hollywood drama "The Bad and the Beautiful," where he up and steals the movie from Kirk Douglas and Lana Turner. I have no doubt he would have makes for a fine Walter Neff in a parallel universe.

Billy Wilder messed with Fred MacMurray's image again

Sixteen years after "Double Indemnity," Billy Wilder would cast Fred MacMurray once again, this time in Wilder's true-blue masterpiece "The Apartment." And, once again, Wilder would be placing MacMurray in a role that could not be more different than the work he had been doing. He plays Jeff Sheldrake, the head honcho of the company that C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) works at. He is cheating on his wife with elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley McLaine). He has been stringing her along for months and months, claiming he plans to divorce his wife for her, but he never actually intends to do this. He is perfectly content using Baxter's apartment for a quick hookup with his mistress and carrying on his life, and after she attempts suicide, he wants no part in the trauma he has caused. While not an outright murderer, Sheldrake is a pretty bad guy.

To show just how much this goes against what MacMurray's persona was, his wife June Haver, known for her musical comedies in the 1940s, tells a story about a family trip to Disneyland after the release of "The Apartment" in the television documentary "Fred MacMurray: The Guy Next Door":

"Kate and Laurie [Fred and June's twin daughters] were about five or six years old, and Fred and I took them out to Disneyland, and they were on the merry-go-round. And this lady came up to Fred with her little girl and said, 'You're Fred MacMurray, aren't you?' And he said, 'Yes.' He was ready to sign an autograph, and she said, 'You know, I've always loved you in all those Disney pictures, and because of that great reputation, I took my daughter to see "The Apartment." Shame on you. Now, I just hate you.' And she hit him with her pocketbook."

First of all, the lack of ability for some people to separate the actor with the character is truly astounding. Assaulting someone at Disneyland because of someone they pretended to be for a little bit? That's completely over the top. But it is responses like that which show you why so many actors are so hesitant to stretch what they can be as actors. You have people like this woman who just cannot handle it. She confirmed all of MacMurray's worries about taking parts like this. So, please, for the sake of artists challenging themselves and the safety of others, do not hit actors when you don't like the people they play. All that does is make you look childish.